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Co-Parenting: Conflict & Cooperation with a Former Spouse: Mary Jeppsen

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
The Truth Network Radio
November 2, 2022 3:00 am

Co-Parenting: Conflict & Cooperation with a Former Spouse: Mary Jeppsen

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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November 2, 2022 3:00 am

Need tips on parenting with a former spouse? On FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson host Dr. Mary Jeppsen--who literally wrote the book on constructive, cooperative coparenting. She'll help you navigate.

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Building Relationships
Dr. Gary Chapman
Building Relationships
Dr. Gary Chapman

here's your hope. Your hope is in striving towards cooperative co-parenting.

Sometimes I hear people say, well, you know, we're divorced. I can't do anything about that. Therefore, my kids are sunk.

No, that's not true. There's a lot you can do, even under these circumstances, to improve their overall well-being. And it has to do with how you manage the co-parenting relationship between the homes. That's what we're after. That's why we're talking about this today. Welcome to Family Life Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Ann Wilson. And I'm Dave Wilson.

And you can find us at or on the Family Life app. This is Family Life Today. Have you ever been in a circumstance where you were standing near two people and they started hitting each other in a fight? Yeah, several times. What? Detroit Lions locker room. Really? Half-time. Yeah, it's happened a couple times in a locker room between players, one time between a player and a coach.

Anyway, all I could tell you is we lost the game. And it was one of the scariest things I've ever been around. When you're around, I mean, they were swinging and landing some punches. There were a couple times where I saw violence in my own home, when my mom and dad were going through a divorce.

Either way, when violence is that close to you, it is not only scary, it can be traumatic and leave marks for a lifetime. And I think today we're going to talk a little bit about how that affects a home and affects a blended family. We've got Ron Deal with us back at Family Life Today. Ron is the director of our blended family ministry at Family Life. Welcome back to Family Life Today, Ron. Hey guys, always good to be with you.

I guess I should ask you the same question Ann asked me. Have you ever been that close to a couple people going at it? Yeah, you know, I've been on a crowded bus when a couple people just started pushing and shoving. And you know, I was close enough that I felt the movement and thought, all right, I'm about to get hit also.

You know, something's gonna happen here. How do I avoid what's going on? How do I step out of the way? Imagine if it was two people you really cared about, whether they were friends or maybe family members. Or imagine you're a child and you're seeing this hostile act between your parents. And there you are, like close enough to be on the receiving end of some of the blows perhaps if they go awry or you just care about the people and you want them to stop.

This is all a metaphor. It's a way of thinking about the conflict that takes place between parents, whether they're married or in the case of our conversation today, if they're divorced from one another, but they still have to continue to be parents. We call those co-parents, co-parenting and raising these children even though you're not living under the same household. But if there's this ongoing hostility, emotional, verbal, sometimes physical, but what I want people to hear is from a child standpoint, they're caught in the middle of it.

It's close enough that it might harm them, but they feel the impact and receive that and they very much just want it to stop. You know, my mom and dad divorced when I was almost seven years old. And I think part of the reason is my mom wanted to remove my brother and I from the abuse of my dad.

You know, it was that close. I think she was protecting us. Do you remember, Dave, what it felt like just emotionally when they would fight in front of you?

I would just run to the my bedroom and close the door and cover my ears, literally cover my ears because I didn't want to hear it. Yeah, these are two people you care about and you just don't want that conflict to take place. So our conversation today is from a Family Life Blended podcast where I was talking with Dr. Mary Jepsen. She's a therapist who specializes in working with hostile co-parents. As a matter of fact, court-ordered co-parents is her specialty.

So you know these are people that it's even got to the legal system. They've been required to go see somebody to help them to not do that so much. She authored a professional manual for therapists around this subject that I endorsed by the way and think is really great.

She and her husband Michael have 11, count of 11 adult children. So let me just say this conversation I think is applicable to a lot of people. Single parents, it's applicable to blended family couples, to grandparents who have grandchildren that they care deeply about who may be this. Extended family members obviously who care about you know nieces or nephews or connected to their family and to ministry leaders who work with kids. My goodness, a fair percentage of children who are coming in and out of your children's ministry, your student ministry, every weekend have experienced something like what we're talking about today. So I just invite everybody to listen for how you could help a friend or help your own situation. Parents are the most important people in a child's life, right?

I mean your mom, your dad, I mean I don't know about you but I tried to please my father till I was 54 for goodness sake. So here I am a younger child in a divorce situation I'm pulled between two parents. My world has been rocked. My safety is based on my home and my home is based on mom and dad being together. So that home breaks up and my sense of safety is totally rocked. I've got to find another sense of safety and in situations where moms and dads continue to fight at least openly in front of the children. I'm not sure that the children ever feel or get a sense of safety in either home.

So they're gonna look somewhere else for a sense of safety and that's not what we want. So I think parents have to be really, really mindful of the fact that it's their responsibility to provide their children a sense of security, a sense of safety, even after divorce. And that is basically based on the children seeing positive civil interactions between mom and dad and the kids knowing I'm gonna get to see mom, I'm gonna get to see dad. This is where we're gonna be.

This is what it's gonna look like. And I think often parents are so hurt and so I guess in turmoil themselves that they have a hard time expressing this to the children. I heard you make an observation once it was really helpful for me and that is, okay, so this civility between mom and dad and connection to a child's overall well-being doesn't really matter how much time has passed since the divorce. It doesn't really matter how old the child is when the divorce takes place or how old they are now. I think that's a little surprising sometimes to people because we kind of have this, well it's been a few years.

So you know that was 10 years ago, 15 years, that was 20 years ago. Oh the kids are 25, they're fine. You know this is not a big deal for them for us to go through the divorce. That's not really true, is it?

Not really. I mean I think time does help to a certain extent but if you grow up with parents who are in conflict you're facing that all the time. And most studies will tell you that you really don't know how a child is affected by divorce until they become old enough to have their own relationships. And if you've ever known somebody who grew up with parents in conflict, they'll tell you it was horrible. It was horrible when we had our first child. It was horrible when we got married.

It was horrible when my grandfather died. I mean all those situations where there's potential for some kind of harmony, there is also potential for some disharmony and that's destructive even for adult children. So I think kids are really affected by how their parents relate to each other. Even kids from, I mean I have adult children, they're affected if they see my husband and I fight. Yes and I think that's really important.

I want to be clear about that. It's about conflict between the parents whether you're married or divorced. I mean children who grew up in an intact home where mom and dad are still married to one another but miserable, they are dramatically impacted by that level of conflict as well.

And so you know feel free to correct me if I'm not right about this. It's as much about the conflict as it is as to whether or not you're still married or in a divorce situation. In other words, do you think this is generally true that divorced co-parents who do a really good job managing their hurt and their anger between one another and they co-parent relatively well, that that creates a fairly safe and stable environment for their children. They're still moving between homes, there's still complications, but if the conflict is low, children benefit from that.

Yes? Yes, I think that's true. I think a lower conflict situation or no conflict situation is ideal because I think children feel like they have to take sides all the time, even adult children. And that's stress producing, that's anxiety producing, and that's really not their job. You know, it's our job as parents to manage our own conflict.

Okay, so to the listener I just want to be really clear about this. Here's your hope. Your hope is in striving towards cooperative co-parenting. Sometimes I hear people say, well, you know, we're divorced, we can't do anything about that, therefore my kids are sunk.

No, that's not true. There's a lot you can do even under these circumstances to improve their overall well-being and it has to do with how you manage the co-parenting relationship between the homes. That's what we're after, that's why we're talking about this today. What in general makes that difficult for co-parents to cooperate? What are some of the emotions? What are some of the things that get in the way of good co-parenting?

Hurt is the first one that comes to mind for me. Hurt, betrayal, mistrust, all of the things, you know, that come between moms and dads. And unless those things are somehow addressed, then I always tell my clients, I guess it's kind of like you're dragging a ball and chain into that relationship. It'll come up and poison your co-parenting relationship. I do suggest to my clients that they allow themselves to grieve over their losses. I mean, I always tell them, it may have been a great idea for you to divorce. Sometimes it's necessary.

I get that. But that doesn't mean there is no loss. When people divorce, a marriage dies and there is loss and you lose, you lose, you lose friends, you lose situations, you lose money, you lose a pet sometimes.

And the worst thing that you lose is time with your children because never again will you see your children every day. And I think it's important that parents grieve over that and face it and reconcile themselves to the fact that yes, they are divorced and yes, these are the changes. And then added to that is that when two people are married, you know how much hurt there is. I mean, marriage is powerful, right? It's really powerful.

Yes. And so the love is powerful and the hurt is powerful. So you take a divorce situation and there are so many offenses that people carry against their ex spouse. And so I try to suggest that they almost even go down the list of the time you came home drunk, the time you betrayed me, the time you said this to me, the time you didn't listen, or the time you were online shopping and you made us totally poor, all these things.

If you can go down that list and then look at it, face it and say, okay, I'm releasing this. I'm not gonna let this get in the way of my relationship with my children. And sometimes I think facing those things and letting them go is kind of essential because otherwise those things, the minute you look at that person or hear their voice, it's probably a trauma response.

It's in there and it just comes out again and again and again and again. And that's not helpful for the children, particularly. They need you all to give each other a clean slate. This is an important connection you're making. My forgiveness work towards my former spouse has everything to do with my ability to be a good co-parent. And at the end of the day, children are gonna be impacted. If I can't forgive, won't forgive, whatever that is, that gets in the way of creating a good parenting climate.

Exactly. And some parents will tell you, but I can't forget. You're asking me to just forget. And I always say forgiveness isn't necessarily forgetting. It's facing the offense and for your own sake and the sake of your children letting go of that offense.

You're listening to Family Life Today and we're actually listening to a portion of the Family Life Blended podcast with Mary Jepsen. And Ron, as I listen to that, you know, I'm like, oh, this is so important for all of us to understand and to get it. But why is forgiveness so important to good co-parenting? Well, first and foremost, it releases you from the pain. I mean, the irony there is when we hang on to resentment, it locks us into the pain that keeps us stuck. It ties us emotionally to the person who's hurt us.

It sort of keeps their power going over us. I mean, that's one of the blessings of forgiveness is you release that and you say, you know what? I'm separate from you. No longer are we in the prison cell together.

I'm walking out and now I have choices. Now I can respond differently toward you. I'm not reacting out of hurt. I'm responding out of, wow, here's a thought, out of love, out of mercy, out of the mercy I've received from God.

I'm now going to extend to you. There's one other thing that I think forgiveness does. It helps a co-parent, I call this acting divorced.

It helps them act divorced. And what I mean by that is there's so many people walking through life still acting as if the other person is their spouse. And I'm your spouse as if that has tied us together in some ways that create obligation and responsibility.

And now I can say, okay, no, my job is to be a business partner with you in raising these children. I'm not obligated towards passion or romance or any of those sorts of elements. Neither do I hold you responsible for who you were in the past. I'm letting that go. I'm not trying to get out of you what you never gave me in our marriage because we're divorced.

That's not a part of our relationship anymore. But I can be responsible as a parent on behalf of our child and cooperate with you. Walking out of that prison cell opens up that ability and that's what we want from co-parents now. How your kids are not standing next to two people who are fighting all the time. Yeah, and I think, you know, watching my mom and dad, my mom never got there.

Isn't that interesting? She never spoke really poorly about my dad in front of me. But, you know, as I even got to doing his funeral as the pastor in the family, my mom didn't even come.

She had never forgiven. And so, you know, as her son, I saw that and experienced that even though I had to get to the point as an adult man to forgive my dad. And it affected your whole family. Yeah, everybody.

And I imagine even while you're doing your dad's funeral, there's a part of you that's sad that your mom's not there. Oh, exactly. So again, you're caught in the middle of their hostility. You know, it was a quiet hostility.

It was a cold war, maybe as a way to say it at that point in the game. But still, it impacts you because these are your parents. I mean, that's an important thing people need to hear. How you react and respond, no matter the age of your child. No matter, they're adults.

It doesn't matter. Yeah. They want civility between their parents.

Yeah. So let's listen to more of my conversation with Mary. I want people to know that there's a whole lot more in this discussion.

They probably should listen to the entire podcast if they want to learn. But at one point, she started talking about the games that co-parents play. Now, I think this part of the conversation is really important for parents, grandparents, and extended families. So we're going to share that with you here. So what I call pain games is when one or the other spouse, ex-spouse, tries to really punish the other person, either through constant litigation or through DHS reports.

I've had couples, they dually DHS reported each other on a regular basis, or more commonly, changing schedules. You know, constantly, I'm late. I'm early. I'm not going to see him this Friday.

I'm going to change to next Friday. Now, you would say, well, what does that have to do with the kids? Well, first of all, kids are sensitive to litigation.

They know when you're under stress. When you make a report to DHS, obviously, the children are brought in to talk to some stranger. They're taken out of class if they're in school. So it really affects them scary. And then changing schedules is like a broken promise to the children. I mean, they have a particular visitation schedule.

And when we don't meet it, we're breaking our promise to them. And so all of those things kind of have a negative effect on kids. When I say I'm going to be there at nine o'clock Saturday morning, I need to be there at nine o'clock Saturday morning, not at two o'clock Saturday afternoon.

Then how is the child supposed to trust me? So for some people, it's a sort of a passive-aggressive, oh, I'm sorry, I'm late. And that's creating pain in your life. Maybe it's a payback. Maybe it's just hurt and anger spilling over.

But I create pain in your life, and that makes me somehow feel better. But at the end of the day, the kid is the one who is suffering the most. Exactly. I have a young couple I see now, and he's constantly late. He doesn't call.

And it's not because he's nasty. It's because he doesn't want her to tell him what to do. So that's still a husband who resents his wife telling him what to do. So I'm now, even though we're not married anymore, I'm still not letting you tell me what to do.

And you know that spills over into the other co-parents' attitude, but you're always late. So am I gonna do you any favors? No. You know, I continue to be more embittered toward you, because again, you've proven you're unreliable and not dependable and untrustworthy.

So I'll probably pay you back somehow, and boy. In the meantime, you've got a child who's crying or upset. And guess who has to deal with the upset child? The one who's waiting.

Yeah. Whose life is being disrupted. That's when parents use the child as a messenger, as a detective. Sometimes co-parents will have their relationship through their child. I'm working with a couple now who never speak, but the child is the one who mitigates everything. I met with the child and she said, I don't want to do that anymore.

Wow. Because when she's put in that position, she can't have a relationship with mom and a free relationship with dad. There's always something she's got to balance. There's always a piece of information or something. So I spy is when you use your child as a messenger, even if it's about changes of plans, or when you're asking your child things like, oh, is mommy dating? Or is daddy dating? Or did daddy go to work?

Did daddy get a new car? I mean, those things in and of themselves, there's nothing wrong with them. But when you ask a child, they feel a sense of betrayal.

So you're asking the child to be put in a position that they don't need to be in. Wow. Definitely avoid that one.

Okay, let's do one more game. You call it setup. Tell us about that. Okay, so I say that setup is common and it's when you set one of the co-parents up as the bad guy. And often there is a bad guy. Sometimes there's somebody with a drug problem or a drinking problem or they had an affair or they have a bad temper. But the child does not need to be privy. The child doesn't need to be privy to that. What that does is that it puts the child in a position where they feel like there's something wrong with the other parent. And then if there's something wrong with the other parent, then there must be something wrong with them because for their whole life they've been told that they're like that other parent or this is like their other parent. Or they don't feel like they should have a free relationship with that other parent. And if that plays out farther down the line, you could be developing an alienating situation from a parent. And parental alienation is a bad thing because what it does is produces a sense of abandonment in your child by one or the other parent. And abandonment is really destructive to children. So I think it's natural at the beginning to kind of say mean things or react, but it's really important if you see that you've done it, apologize to your children and go forward with a positive attitude. And certainly stop setting up the other parent as being the bad guy. You know, again, as you were talking ahead of thought, what's implicit in negative comments about the other home that set them up is a request. It's almost as if you're saying, okay, because your father, mother, whatever the case is, is an alcoholic, you should be more loyal to me. You should want to spend more time here. You should listen to us.

You should, our values should trump their values. It's an implicit request for loyalty to a child. And whether you mean it that way or not, that's something they hear and internalize. And then I love the way you said it, they're not free at that point to love the parent. And what a bind because they do love their parent. They do want to be close.

They do want to maintain that that relationship. And some parents would say, but my values are better. You know, here we go to church and we do this and we do that in that house.

They don't go to church and they, they drink in the evening and dah, dah, dah, dah. If you've got a problem with that, sit down and talk with the other parent. Don't use your child to express that issue. And don't assume that just because you have Christian values does not mean the other family is destructive, you know, because often in divorce, there's a difference in value systems.

And there certainly is some nitty-gritty. I talk about this quite a bit in a few of my books, especially The Smart Stuff Family. I do think there's a time and a place to explain to your children what your values are about. Yes, they're different than the other home and to lay those out.

But it's how you do it. If the tone is speaking truth in love, then you're gracious about the other home. You're kind and respectful in your tone about the people in the other home. And you can have a difference of values and you can explain that. It's very different when you say, well, our values are better because we love Jesus, because of this, because of that, and therefore you should reject them. That's the nature of what you're saying.

Well, that's very destructive. And ironically enough, just shows that you don't live your own values. I think that's a message that a lot of Christian people really need to take to heart, you know, just because you espouse those Christian values does not give you the right to be malicious in how you deliver or speak about those values with the other home. We've been listening here on Family Life Today to a Family Life Blended podcast that Ron Deal had a conversation with Mary Jepsen. And I tell you Ron, that last thought, I lived that, you know, watching my single mom talk about my dad's life.

His life was not representing Christ. And when I would go down to see him, you know, my mom had to juggle this, you know, he's gonna have girlfriends, he's gonna go out. That was not a part of my life with my mom. And I remember her coaching me as a young 12 year old and 13 year old boy to just be careful. And somehow I remember she did it with grace.

And now I'm listening thinking, man, she could have ripped him pretty badly. She actually did it honorably, but I knew I had my antenna up because my mom prepared me. We all face situations with our kids where we send them into the world, you know, when they get to be teenagers and social media brings that right in through their phone these days. And we have to equip our children to understand the world's values and the Christian values that we want them to live by. Some people, in the case of your mom, just the world is dad's house.

But for her to season her words and her teaching to you with grace is what it's all about. I really cringe when Christian people have this spiritual one-up hubris that says, well, because we're Christian, because they're not, because we go to this church and they go to that church, you should listen to us. And they're just exuding pride and then expecting their children to not see that pride.

I think the irony is in that moment you're really not demonstrating the humility of Christ. And I think you're losing your voice with your children. You're making it harder for them to embrace your values.

But Ron, that would be super hard. Yes. You know, when one family is living morally an opposite life of what you're living, do you have no judgment to say it's wrong or do you say nothing? Judgment is that, yes, we can talk about truth, we can talk about the scriptures teach, and this is why we believe what we believe. But when you season it with grace, then there's a softness to how you deliver that.

When you season it with pride, now it's, oh, we're just better people. And that is a message that I think limits your voice with your children. Don't elevate yourself just because you believe that you have the right truth. Does that make sense? Yeah.

I mean, that's the delicate space here. Yes, teach truth. So yes, say, in effect, there's a judgment about how they believe what their morals are. And I think you just simply say, but this is what we believe. It's very much like what you're going to do when children go to the other homes and engage the world with their friends. Most parents wouldn't speak horribly ill of, you're going to your friend's house, now be careful because, you know, their parents are gonna go to hell. You know, you wouldn't present it like that.

I hope not. But Christian people who have a lot of pain and hurt over a divorce from a former spouse will do that, and they shouldn't. That's where this forgiveness piece comes in. That's where the letting go and acting divorce piece comes in.

And now it's really living your values in front of your children so that what you're teaching them feels more acceptable. Yeah, and I'll tell you, there's a lot of great wisdom in this podcast with Mary Jepsen. You've only heard a portion of it, so go ahead and go get the entire podcast, listen to it, and share it with others. That's David Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on Family Life Today. We've been listening to clips from the Family Life Blended podcast, episode 69 with Dr. Mary Jepsen. You can hear the rest of the podcast episode by searching for Family Life Blended wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can get the link in today's show notes at If you're interested in becoming a better co-parent, and who wouldn't be, then you'll want to know about Blended and Blessed. It's our live event and live stream just for couples and step-families.

The event is coming up next April on the 29th, and the best news is you don't even have to leave home to attend. You can learn more under the show notes section of And tomorrow on Family Life Today, David Ann Wilson talk about how small issues in marriage can easily turn into bitterness, anger, and an overall feeling of just constantly being offended. We hope you'll join us for that tomorrow. On behalf of David Ann Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a production of Family Life, a crew ministry, helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
Whisper: small.en / 2022-11-09 00:13:29 / 2022-11-09 00:20:19 / 7

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